The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia
By Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis O. Berman
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011, 248 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 14, 2011
People who accept every biblical statement as true and those who insist that episodes such as the Israelite exodus from Egypt never occurred can learn much from the Passover story. Every age and every people had its Pharaoh, slave-like oppression, and need for a Moses and deliverance. The authors show how the Passover story, the tyrannical slavery and the exodus to freedom, is a paradigm for many other similar situations among other nations and within the personal lives of individuals. They give many examples and discuss what we can learn from them today. They see the exodus story as a call to every generation for action. "Looking at the world today, we see the whole human race, the whole planet in a crisis that dwarfs any crisis before. Several elements of that crisis remind us of the archetypal tale of Pharaoh, the exodus, the transformative experience of Sinai, and the struggle to shape a new kind of community."
For the Passover story is not restricted to Jews. The biblical prophet Amos said in 9:7, "Are the children of Israel not just like the children of Ethiopia? Haven't I brought up Israel from the land of Egypt, the Philistines from Kaphtor, and Aram from Kir?"
The authors discuss examples from biblical tales, historical incidences, and current events. They retell biblical events in a realistic, non-miraculous, often passionate, always thought-provoking manner. Thus, for instance, after complaining to Moses that they lacked sufficient food, the Israelites found something they had never seen before. They queried Moses, "Mahn hu (what is that)? ... Moses told them it was the food that they were so badly wanting. Every day, the manna fell. The people learned to gather just enough to meet their needs for one more day. Any surplus rotted away, began to stink of greed or fear. Until this moment, for many human beings life was locked into the pattern of an even deeper, broader serfdom than had been true for the Israelites in Egypt. Everyone had worked day after day, every day, sweat pouring down their faces, to wring from the hostile earth barely enough food to survive." The people were enslaved to their misguided lust for more and more food.
This situation "got encoded into the biblical legend of Eden, the Garden of Delight…. 'Look around!' the universe had said again and again. 'The earth is full of abundance beyond measure. But you must bring some measure to it. You must not gobble up all the life around you. For if you do, you will prosper in a big way for a short while. But then the abundance will wither – you yourself will cause it to wither – and you will find yourselves scrabbling to eat what little is left." Yes, your labors, your self-enslavement, will produce more food, but you will be destroying your bodies, your family's health, and the earth. You will toil endlessly. You will create unnecessary and even destructive laws. You will segregate women and subjugate them. There will be more births and more labor pains as you work with the sweat on your brow. "To prevent that happening, you must learn to put gentle limits on your eating."
Liberated from Egypt, the Israelites were freed from this misguided labor as well, and offered a taste of Eden once again. The manna did not require sweat and toil to bring it forth. People ate only enough to survive and lived more healthy lives. And they were given an even deeper freedom: "One day in every seven, the people did not even need to do the light and joyful work of gathering the manna…. What started (with Adam and Eve in Eden) with a troubled act of eating is healed with a jubilant act of eating (in moderation on the Shabbat)." This is one example of the many the authors give of freedoms from tyranny that is similar to the exodus from Egypt; freedom, if only people think a little about how they have enslaved themselves.
The authors include three short chapters from four contributors. One by two Christian theologian-activists compares the biblical story to the life and death of Jesus. A second, by a Black Christian scholar-activist writes about the experiences of African Americans. The third, by a Muslim scholar, reveals that Moses and the exodus story are major themes in the Qur'an and Moses is the most often mentioned prophet in the volume. The author explains why this story is so central to the Qur'anic narrative and how the story guides Muslims today. Pharaoh is depicted as the arch-enemy of God. He builds a tower to heaven and shoots arrows at God. The Qur'an warns believers to love God and not to oppress anyone.